Essa Yacoub, PhD, a professor in the Department of Radiology at the University of Minnesota Medical School is a co-investigator in a national study that investigates what keeps our brains sharp as we age and what contributes to cognitive decline.

The project,  Adult Aging Brain Connectome (AABC) study, is funded by a $33.1 million grant from the National Institute on Aging. The goal of the research is to identify factors that put people at-risk for, or protect them from, cognitive decline. To do this, the study collects comprehensive imaging, clinical, social, psychological and cognitive data on a diverse cohort of over 1,000 adults. 

“This study is a continuation of projects and efforts we started more than a dozen years ago,” Dr. Yacoub said. “The Adult Aging Brain Connectome study continues to follow the aging population that we identified in the previous project, with the aim of getting more data points to see whether or not there were markers or signs that could have predicted someone would have a more healthy aging process versus someone who would be more susceptible to disease or cognitive decline.”

Dr. Yacoub says the study not only focuses on brain data regarding cognitive decline, but also looks at other markers such as lifestyle or behavioral risk factors of participants. More specifically, it analyzes why certain people are at risk while others are resilient to dementia or cognitive declines.

Dr. Yacoub's and the U of M Medical School’s expertise in brain imaging plays a vital role in the research. 

“The U of M’s Center For Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) is responsible for the imaging methods that are used in these connectome projects, and because of the visibility of the connectome projects, those methods have been dispersed and are in use in labs around the world,” he said. “The techniques we developed and are using for this project are part of many major neuroimaging studies. That’s why the U of M was originally brought on and still why we are a major player in important studies such as this.”

Dr. Yacoub emphasizes the importance of getting a high-resolution high-quality image in a short amount of time when collecting data for the AABC project. “With the methods we developed you get to see the brain at finer detail with reduced scan times while still getting sufficient amounts of data from vulnerable populations.”

In addition to the U of M Medical School, the AABC project has been launched by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Harvard University/Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). 

To Dr. Yacoub, the AABC project is very important because being able to identify markers of cognitive decline can help medical providers and researchers get ahead of disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and possibly tackle them before the situation gets out-of-hand.